Since my first book was published, I've gotten numerous messages—written and in person—from those who question (challenge!) the use of profanity and (according to one critic) “sexual content” in my stories. My own mother called me after the publication of Sow the Wind, Reap the Whirlwind and was incensed that it contained the “f-word.” (That’s how she refers to it.) She informed me that she refused to read any further for that reason. (My Mom is an old-fashioned Southern lady. I've rarely heard her use profanity, and she raised us not to “cuss.”)
Here’s how one person put it when they sent me their question: "You profess to be a Christian, but your book contained vulgar profanity and sexual content. How do you justify that?"
Author’s Note: This was in reference to the first book, which I think is tame; the second one is much more…provocative, and could cause this reader's head to explode!
Let me begin to address this concern by going back to something that I say very often when talking about my books: they are not religious novels, but stories about religious people. I am a Christian, but I am not writing “Christian fiction.” While God may be part of the story, some of God’s followers are not always...well, godly. Trust me, I've been blasted several times—including a scathing review of my first book on Amazon—by those who mistakenly read (or started reading) my books thinking they are “Christian fiction.” Oops!
That said, even as a Christian, I won’t avoid the issue of sex and sexual activity when it obviously fits the character in the story; that would be dishonest. Whether we want to admit it or not, Christians have sex. And sometimes, it’s not the kind of sex approved by their church (e.g., adultery, pre-marital). In my first book, I have a Baptist Minister of Music who’s a serial adulterer. In my second book, my main character is gay. He was raised by well-known televangelists, but he's essentially a man-whore. (Sorry, Mom. Is that considered a cuss word?)
In my own defense, let me say that I don’t (can’t) write graphic sex scenes. Trust me, I've tried and I end up giggling and the scenes always end up sounding like cheesy, bad pornography dialogue. (Not that I would know what that sounds like…but I've been told.) One of the editors on The Mind Set on the Flesh suggested that one of the pivotal scenes needed to be a bit racier, but every time I tried, it didn't work for me. I think the intensity of a sex scene is largely dependent on the views of the reader; what I think is suggestive others can see as offensive. To some, the very fact that I’m showing people of faith involved in sex outside of marriage is a major issue, regardless of how much detail is used in the descriptions. And I'm sure the fact my main character is gay and having sex doesn't sit well with many.
The same could be said of “coarse language.” (Another phrase from a reader’s comments.) As a writer and self-proclaimed ‘wordsmith,’ I've always been fascinated with people’s adamant aversion to certain words…most of which are merely culturally defined as obscene. What makes some “profanity” more acceptable than others? “Damn” seems to be generally accepted, unless we put God in front, then many consider it taking God’s name in vain. “Hell” is okay, while there are some who think calling another person a “fool” is unforgivable. When it comes to censorship on TV, the word “sh#t” is not allowed on network channels, but they say it on basic cable channels, such as USA and TNT. (Not sure the reasons or rules.)
Author’s Note: There’s one word that was much harder for me to write than any “cuss word.” In the first book, one of my characters uses the N-word, which is so offensive to me. But the context and speaker of the that word was fitting, even though I still cringe when I think of it. That word, to me, is profanity!
For the record, I don’t enjoy excessive profanity, either in what I’m reading or what I’m watching. It's not part of my own everyday vocabulary. I’m not overly fond of the “f-word,” though I have to contend that sometimes, it’s the only word that works in a scene. I try to make the vocabulary fit the person/character.
Example: In The Mind Set on the Flesh, I would never have Thumper’s mother spouting the f-word; that would be completely incongruent for a woman of her faith environment and convictions. On the other hand, “shucks” wouldn't work for an angry Thumper.
While we write fiction, we must portray reality. Whether our character is a knight in world of mythical creatures, a captain of a space vessel launched from some distant planet, a housewife having a torrid affair with her neighbor…or a single Baptist minister struggling with moral uncertainties (as in my first novel), they must act with a consistency of who they are, which makes them believable.
As a fiction writer, I think we do have an obligation to our readers…but we have a greater obligation to our characters. If they are not real, then we have failed both the character and our readers. It is our job to convey the story that burns inside us. Our daunting, unalterable task is to bring to life the characters who are revealing themselves to us. To tell their truth! We must not be timid, worried that we might offend but bold in adherence to the integrity of their story.